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A life in observation: Spanish photographer José Suárez’s retrospective opens in Delhi

Known to his family and friends as Pepe, Suárez’s photographic vision was unique and humanist, with a deep interest in the anthropology of his times.

art and culture Updated: Oct 20, 2017 18:02 IST

In Salamanca, Spanish photographer José Suárez spent enough time amid Spain’s intellectuals. Pictured here is essayist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in 1934, as if almost contemplating the depth of the ocean from the headlands. (José Suárez)

The harpsichord in Bach’s “Andante (Sonata in G)” lends itself to one of the most endearing listening experiences, especially when alone in a large gallery of photographs that carry the weight of a personal history. The music aligns itself to the formidable power of 20th century Spanish photographer José Suárez’s images, when viewed in the context of the Galician way of life. Arguably the largest retrospective of his work, the Instituto Cervantes in New Delhi has put on exhibit 159 photographs, 111 documents & publications, 7 audiovisual montages and 5 three-dimensional objects in an exhibition titled, “José Suárez, 1902-1974: Lively eyes that think.”

Suárez was close to the European avant-garde movement of his time and this informed his photographic approach distinctly. He never distanced himself from formalism in his aesthetic, yet documented rather simply, the communities he lived and travelled within. The exhibition, on show until December 10, is divided chronologically into three sections, ‘The 30s,” “Exile (1936- ca. 1956)” and “The Return (1959 onwards),” each marking significant events in Suárez’s life. In the 1930s, he studied law in Salamanca and stayed close to the Spanish intellectuals, making closely considered and observed portraits of them. In this series is a pensive portrayal of essayist & philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in 1934, where one feels certain that Unamuno was contemplating the depth of the sea from atop the Castilian plains. Even in his photograph of the prolific Latin American sculptor, Lorenzo Dominguez, Suárez uses the harsh sun to highlight Domiguez’s facial outlines next to a bust probably sculpted by him. This distinct employment of form is recurrent even in his famous series, “Mariñeiros,” in which he photographed the Galician peasant community and the fishing community. His cinematic use of the low angle was employed in several portraits in this series, leading one to think of a similar kind of visual approach in some of the Neorealist films in the 1950s. Much like a visual, ethnographic study of the community, though not left untouched by Suárez’s aesthetic, he used the afternoon sun to make striking images of the fishermen, their faces covered in fishing nets— symbolic of how what they do is inseparable from who they are.

As one observes his years in exile when he left Spain because of the Civil War, it is apparent that this period sparked a search for self, especially in his journeys to Latin America (including Brazil) and Japan. In Japan, there’s a noticeable distance that Suárez kept from his subjects, observing the scenes and the way of life there like a curious outsider, yet not being unaffected by the philosophy that would move him deeply in the years to come. Suárez even went on a pilgrimage to Mount Fujiyama and made a photograph from the top of the peak, signifying the end of his journey there in a most endearing manner.

Returning to Spain in the late ‘50s, Suárez visited La Mancha in the south of Madrid and photographed its white, built landscape with people’s ephemeral appearances in them. He even photographed a bullfight in an unusual manner, one such image subtly conveying the horror of a knife stuck in a bull’s body. Suárez, however, was not excited by what he saw. “I went (there) in search of Don Quixote but found only Sancho Panzas,” he famously wrote. The oppressive regime had loosened its hold on Spain, but not without denying cultural expression and freedom. Heartbroken, he left for Japan again, where he met the acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa on the sets of ‘The Bad Sleep Well.’ In his personal notes, he wrote of the encounter, “To watch a director immersed in his work saves any kind of interrogation, especially when we are already familiar with the atmosphere of a film studio. So familiar that suddenly, we become aware of our mission and try to go unnoticed.”

On his return to Spain some years later, Suárez found only solitude by his side and little recognition. His fragile health wasn’t helping his frustration and he committed suicide in 1974, having attempted it once before. He had on himself, the manuscript of the prologue that Unamuno had written for his first book. A modest note that requested his burial in an unpainted wooden casket in a common grave was left behind. There was no mention of any camera.

First Published: Oct 20, 2017 17:46 IST